National Guard ready for potential record-breaking wildfire, hurricane season

By Air Force Master Sgt. Amber Monio, National Guard BureauMay 31, 2024

Soldiers with the Texas Army National Guard rescue Houston residents as floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey continue to rise, Monday, August 28, 2017. More than 12,000 members of the Texas National Guard have been called out to support local authorities in response to the storm.
Soldiers with the Texas Army National Guard rescue Houston residents as floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey continue to rise, Monday, August 28, 2017. More than 12,000 members of the Texas National Guard have been called out to support local authorities in response to the storm. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Zachary West) VIEW ORIGINAL

ARLINGTON, Va. — With 2024 projected as one of the hottest years on record, climate scientists have noted a heightened risk of hurricanes and wildfires, but National Guard officials said the Guard is more prepared than ever to respond to these challenges.

“Our saying in Florida is that you’re either in hurricane season or you’re preparing for hurricane season,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Blake Heidelberg, director of military support with the Florida National Guard, during a media roundtable discussion on the topic May 28, 2024.

With abnormally high ocean temperatures, especially in the Atlantic, scientists anticipate an active hurricane season. The National Hurricane Center predicts between 17 and 25 storms, with at least eight likely to develop into hurricanes. In Florida, where hurricanes are an annual threat, preparedness is paramount.

“We dedicate an annual drill to hurricane response and domestic operations training,” Heidelberg said, underscoring the Florida Guard’s continual readiness.

Heidelberg added the Florida Guard’s structured approach to hurricane preparedness includes coordination with state and county authorities and the integration of national support through the yearly All-Hazards Conference, a comprehensive event designed to address a wide range of emergency management and disaster preparedness topics.

The conference discussion includes preparing for wildfires, which have increased in severity and frequency in California. The National Interagency Fire Center predicts that trend to continue with rising temperatures and prolonged drought conditions in the state.

Washington National Guard service members receive training in preparation for the upcoming wildfire season during the Washington State Department of Natural Resources Interagency Wildland Fire Training Academy near Roy, Wash., May 15, 2022. The training included familiarization with hand tools, line construction and tactics, and fire shelter deployment and entrapment avoidance.
Washington National Guard service members receive training in preparation for the upcoming wildfire season during the Washington State Department of Natural Resources Interagency Wildland Fire Training Academy near Roy, Wash., May 15, 2022. The training included familiarization with hand tools, line construction and tactics, and fire shelter deployment and entrapment avoidance. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Adeline Witherspoon) VIEW ORIGINAL

The California National Guard stands ready to respond, said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Robert F. Paoletti, director of the joint staff with the California National Guard, praising his state’s proactive measures.

“I’m very proud of the fact that California has made significant investments towards prevention rather than just reaction to wildfires,” he said.

In 2019, the California Guard launched Task Force Rattlesnake, a collaborative initiative with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection where California Guard members help clear forest debris and mitigate wildfire risks alongside CALFIRE personnel.

“California has significantly invested in wildfire prevention, putting over 300 National Guardsmen on emergency state active duty as part of Task Force Rattlesnake,” said Paoletti.

TF Rattlesnake, operating under CALFIRE’s direction, augments the agency with 14 hand crews during fire season. Their efforts include creating defensible spaces, removing fuel sources, and conducting prescribed burns to manage vegetation and lower the likelihood of catastrophic fires.

“California’s significant investment with CALFIRE will hopefully limit how much play time that we have to spend fighting fires, because they’re so much more ready to react than they were five years ago,” said Paoletti.

Paoletti also praised recent advancements in CALFIRE’s air fleet and said the California Guard stands ready to augment them when needed.

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A California Air National Guard C-130J Super Hercules aircraft, assigned to the 146th Airlift Wing, equipped with the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) performs a water drop during MAFFS training at Channel Islands Air National Guard Station, Port Hueneme, California, April 24, 2024. Air National Guard aircrew from the California Air National Guard's, 146th Airlift Wing and the U.S. Air Force Reserve's 302nd Airlift Wing, train together to accomplish their aerial firefighting certification alongside the U.S. Forest Service and other wildfire prevention agencies. The recertification training includes classroom sessions, flying and ground operations for Air Force aircrews, civilian lead plane pilots, and support personnel from the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and other federal and state agencies. (Photo Credit: Tech. Sgt. Michelle Ulber) VIEW ORIGINAL

That includes the California Air National Guard’s 146th Airlift Wing, which operates C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft equipped with the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, capable of dropping thousands of gallons of fire retardant.

Additionally, the California Army National Guard assists with helicopters capable of dropping water or fire retardant. California Army Guard ground crews also man checkpoints and assist in evacuation areas while responding to wildfires.

Guard leaders also touched on the potential role of artificial intelligence in disaster response, which includes using it in analysis for flood predictions and tracking hurricane patterns, said Heidelberg.

Paoletti added that the California Guard also uses AI in similar ways in its FireGuard program to enhance early fire detection. FireGuard uses military satellites and incorporates civilian resources from the National Interagency Fire Center, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and the U.S. Forest Service to detect wildfires, notify authorities, and create unclassified products to disseminate to firefighting networks nationwide.

In 2023, 14,000 wildfires were detected using a combination of aerial surveillance, ground-based monitoring stations, and advanced satellite imagery technology, said Paoletti.

U.S. Soldiers assigned to the 1st Battalion, 183rd Aviation Regiment, the 1st Battalion, 189th Aviation Regiment and 3rd Battalion, 126th Aviation Regiment, Hawaii Army National Guard, secure a Bambi bucket to a UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter during aerial fire suppression water drop operations in response to the Mililani wildfires at Mililani, Hawaii, Nov. 4, 2023. The Hawaii National Guard has conducted over 70 water drops and 30,000 gallons of water over the wildfires in Mililani.
U.S. Soldiers assigned to the 1st Battalion, 183rd Aviation Regiment, the 1st Battalion, 189th Aviation Regiment and 3rd Battalion, 126th Aviation Regiment, Hawaii Army National Guard, secure a Bambi bucket to a UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter during aerial fire suppression water drop operations in response to the Mililani wildfires at Mililani, Hawaii, Nov. 4, 2023. The Hawaii National Guard has conducted over 70 water drops and 30,000 gallons of water over the wildfires in Mililani. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Lianne Hirano) VIEW ORIGINAL

“Our FireGuard program uses real-time geospatial data to identify fire starts and notify authorities promptly,” he said, adding that the California Guard must be ready for more than just wildfires.

“We responded in the last few years to floods and California’s first hurricane,” said Paoletti. “I know Florida is much more experienced with those than we are, but we stand ready to uphold the National Guard motto of, ‘Always Ready, Always There,’ to respond to the needs of Californians when they need it most.”

U.S. Army Col. Larry Doane, chief of the current operations division at the National Guard Bureau, said the Guard is actively engaged and ready to respond across the U.S.

“As of 2024, we’ve executed about 2.5 million personnel days, with a significant portion dedicated to domestic operations like wildfire missions and severe weather responses,” he said.

Doane said the unique nature of the Guard allows for a locally led, locally driven response, supported by the entire nation, adding that the Guard’s training for the combat mission is what makes it effective in responding during disasters and emergencies at home.

“You know, in my years of doing this, that’s the special sauce that I think really brings the National Guard to the fore in these responses,” he said. “And the thing that our citizens really come to rely upon on their toughest days.”

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